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Why We Drink, and Why We Quit: An Excerpt from the Audible Original ‘Cold Turkey’ by Mishka Shubaly

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Mishka Shubaly’s Audible Original, ‘Cold Turkey: How to Quit Drinking by Not Drinking,’ is out today. Read an excerpt here, then listen to the whole story on Audible.

Grab your notebook and pen and make a list of why you drink.

Here are some reasons why I drank: I drank to help me sleep. I drank as a reward after a hard day. I drank because my back hurt. I drank so I’d be able to talk to people, to socialize. I drank to get laid because I felt that I couldn’t talk to women unless I was drinking. I drank to be tough. I drank to be cool. I drank because it was expected of me because it’s what I understood men do. I drank because writers drank. I drank because all my friends drank; it was what we did together. I drank to unwind, I drank to wake up, I drank to get loose, I drank because I thought it made me a better musician, a better writer, a better performer. I drank because I was hurt by my father’s abrupt abandonment of our family when I was fifteen. I drank because I was heartbroken over an ex or two or three. I drank because I was bored or anxious. I drank to quell my anxiety and panic attacks. I drank because I was happy or sad or because I wanted to feel happy or sad. I drank because I was angry. I drank to feel good and not feel bad. I drank because I felt like I was going to die or because I wanted to die or because I wanted to feel like I was dying. I drank when I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t drink because I was afraid of failure–failure quickly became very comfortable for me—I drank because I was afraid of trying and failing.

When you’re finished with that list, I want you to write about why you don’t want to stop drinking. I did an informal poll of my drinking friends on Twitter and Facebook, and their number one reason for not quitting was the same as my only reason for not quitting: fear. I was afraid of going through life without alcohol, from the first couple of rough days of acute withdrawal to not being able to celebrate with a beer to not being able to anesthetize myself through an exhausting work week to not being able to drown my sorrows in a vat of liquor when something bad happened. How would I leave the house, how would I be able to deal with other people, how would I be able to socialize, how would I have fun, how would I be able to have sex? I was afraid of selling out, of growing up, of changing.

You’re worried that your life as a drunk has not prepared you for a life sober but your life as a drunk has absolutely prepared you for a life sober.

You may feel weak and powerless, terrified of quitting, but you probably have no reason to be afraid of anything. You’re worried that your life as a drunk has not prepared you for a life sober but your life as a drunk has absolutely prepared you for a life sober. Think of what you’ve endured before this point. How many days have you crawled to work and worked a full day—in a stuffy office, in the blazing hot sun, in the freezing cold, with a crowd of people yelling at you—while you were incredibly hungover? To get to a point where you’re ready to quit, you must have survived innumerable horrors. I fried 50 pounds of bacon during the graveyard shift, I dug ditches, I moved furniture, I answered phones, I processed sensitive visa and passport applications, I interviewed at the New Yorker, I cleaned out sub-basements and parking garages in Queens in February. The thought of doing any one of those things with a hangover now scares the shit out of me. But I did them, every one of them. It doesn’t matter that I didn’t know I would have to chop chicken wings that were going bad when I popped the cap on that plastic bottle of Gordon’s gin. What matters is that when the time came, I got up on four hours of sleep and I got the job done.

Don’t for one minute make the mistake of thinking alcoholics are weak. Alcohol made you feel weak, but alcoholism has absolutely made you strong. How many stories have you heard about alcoholics who have gone on to set insane endurance records, running or biking for days and days, for hundreds and hundreds of miles? Alcoholics live against tremendous resistance for years and years—we have unmatched tenacity and determination. It takes a tremendous amount of strength to live with alcohol. It’s taken a considerable amount of strength for you to get this far. That strength will serve you well now that it’s time to live without it. I thought I was weak and useless but when the time came, I had it in me to do that fearsome thing. You do, too. The only thing you’re afraid of right now is the unknown.

Alcoholics live against tremendous resistance for years and years—we have unmatched tenacity and determination.

No one knows more about the nature of fear than the master of horror, Stephen King: “Nothing is so frightening as what’s behind the closed door… The audience holds its breath along with the protagonist as she/he (more often she) approaches that door. The protagonist throws it open, and there is a ten-foot-tall bug. The audience screams, but this particular scream has an oddly relieved sound to it. ‘A bug ten feet tall is pretty horrible,’ the audience thinks, ‘but I can deal with a ten-foot-tall bug. I was afraid it might be a hundred feet tall.’”

It’s no coincidence that King is also a sober alcoholic. No one knows more about fear than addicts, by capitulating to it and seeking shelter in oblivion, we give our lives over to it entirely. King’s point in the above quote is that nothing is more terrifying than the unknown. Our brain puts something in that closed closet that is scarier than anything we can actually see. When the closet finally bursts open, yes, there’s fear but also relief because no amount of blood or slime or razor-sharp fangs is scarier than the unknown. I had a right to feel fear and you have a right to feel fear. But when you do stop drinking and you swing that closet door open, you need to know that nothing you find there will be as scary as what you imagine it to be. After ten years sober, the only thing that scares me is the thought of falling back into my old drinking life.

Mishka Shubaly is the author of seven bestselling Kindle Singles and the memoir I Swear I’ll Make It Up to You. He has traveled the world as a songwriter, storyteller and comedian, sharing the stage with artists like Doug Stanhope, Richard Price, Ron White and Lydia Lunch. In 2001, he survived a shipwreck. In 2017, he was a clue on Jeopardy! When not writing, recording or touring, he teaches nonfiction at the Yale Writers’ Workshop. In the spring of 2019, he celebrated ten years sober.

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